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Profiles in Courage: Reflections from the Grand Canyon 2010 by Betty Wagner

As dawn’s first light began to unveil the world, I felt as though I was waking from a dream. Our trek had begun in the moonless dark of early morning, fumbling to the South Kaibab trailhead, fiddling with headlamps, marveling at the brilliant stars above, and tentatively picking our way down 5000 feet of steep and twisting trail toward Phantom Ranch. Passing through a pitch black tunnel, we finally arrived at the Colorado River nestled at the bottom of the majestic Grand Canyon – the first marker on our long and arduous trek from the South Rim to the North Rim and back again in one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.

I suspected I would have a tough time this year given my summer training recipe: run a trail marathon without adequate preparation, mix in several weeks of attempting to recover, repeat for two 50k trail ultras, fold in a punishing road marathon after a summer on the trails and then set out for the Grand Canyon four weeks later. Needless to say, my suspicions were valid. My quads ached and ankles complained on that first downhill stretch; it was going to be a long and painful day.

Phantom Ranch soon loomed ahead in the dim early light. We filled our packs with acrid tasting water, a result of drainage and ancient pipe problems, and headed out across the canyon floor. This eight mile trail section rolls gently and tends slightly uphill to the Residence at the base of the North Rim – my first decision point for continuing on or turning back early. We took our time, drinking in the beauty of the canyon and the play of morning’s light over layers of geological history, but I was worried about my tired legs and whether I could or should try to endure as we approached the north end of Bright Angel Canyon.

Our friend, Dean, an experienced mountain and rock climber was very excited about running Rim to Rim to Rim and I had every confidence he would finish strongly. Bob was in better shape than I. I knew he could do it, plus he had unfinished business from our previous trip, when he experienced heat effects that turned us around about a mile and a half before the North Rim. My legs whined, my eyes were swollen from dust, altitude and exertion and the water sucked, but I couldn’t quit. I hoped my decision wasn’t a risky, stupid gamble and I prayed to the canyon gods to be kind to me. Up we went.

All serious runners know that our sport parallels life. Our hopes and perhaps illusions are high setting out. We plan and train and put in the work. We have good days and bad days, injuries and set backs. We never stop learning, usually the hard way, and we find we can almost always endure in the face of adversity. Here was another test for me, just as circumstances awaiting me at home presented their own challenges.

As I pushed up the trail, I thought about my dad, Dick Wagner, a world ranked light- heavyweight boxer, dancing into the ring to face the likes of Jake LaMotta and Floyd Patterson as the bell rang for the 8th, 9th, 10th rounds. In the video of their first match, which Floyd sent us years later, I witnessed my dad’s exhaustion and determination, as he battled with the heart of a lion to the finish. I kept going, fear and the steep terrain tempering my pace.

I thought about my friend, Dot Helling, who was running from the South Rim to Phantom Ranch and back with her sister and friends that day. Dot, who has completed the double crossing four times and run hundreds of marathons, fifty and hundred milers. Dot, who at age 57 was selected to run around the world with the international Blue Planet Team to raise awareness about the shortage of drinking water. Dot, who is now learning to appreciate and live her passion with a partial knee replacement. I kept moving, choking down the bitter water and squinting in the dust. I ran for Dot.

As we approached the final climb to the North Rim, Bob gave me a hug as I blinked back tears of exhaustion. I remembered meeting the impish Susan Gimble, a premier ultra runner in the 1980′s and early 1990′s. The night before our 2005 double crossing, Susan with her partner in crime, Larry, regaled us with the story their legendary Double Double Crossing – yes, they turned around after running Rim to Rim to Rim and did the whole thing again, finishing in just under 30 hours. Susan, the only woman to successfully complete this feat, suddenly dead from ovarian cancer a mere six months later. I was not going to quit. Step by painful step I would make it.

The North Rim appeared, my mood lifted, we snapped our photos and turned around. Oh the punishment of those five steep downhill miles back to the Residence, yet each step brought us mercifully closer to the finish.

For me running is freedom – being completely in the moment, feeling my body move, hearing my breath, appreciating the beauty and the privilege, meeting the challenge. My goal is to live with as much presence and grace as I feel when I run. It’s much harder in real life.

We traversed the eight rolling miles back across the canyon to Phantom Ranch, filled up with iced tea and lemonade instead of ill-tasting water and headed for the bridge spanning the Colorado River to the Bright Angel Trail with almost twelve hours under our belts. More than nine miles and 5000 feet in elevation gain lay ahead. Less than four hours to go if we were lucky, just over two hours until dark. One foot in front of the other.

No one else has ever mentioned her, but every time Bob and I have headed up the trail from the river, we have seen the Bright Angel herself. She hovers in the rock cliffs above the stream flowing from Indian Gardens. Formed of brilliant green moss and encircled by halos of water, she watches over those who pass her way. She’s there whether you see her or not. We smile, bow our heads in reverence and continue on, buoyed by her presence.

We are awake, no longer in a dream, fully aware and focused, with the unmistakable odor of mule urine stinging our nostrils like smelling salts. We emerge at Indian Gardens, greeted by a beautiful black doe, a gift and an omen. We prepare for the final 4.6 miles to the South Rim, a seemingly endless exercise of lifting tired legs up and over water bars. We are courageous, like Susan and Dot and my dad. We too possess the hearts of lions as we make our way up the trail and prepare for darkness to descend upon us once again. We count down the landmarks that mark our progress toward the highest twinkling lights above. We will make it together. We always do.

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